When Bill 27, Working for Workers Act, was introduced, there was some concern among opposition members that a “poison pill” would be hidden within the text. After three days of hearings last week, NDP members of the social policy committee appear to have found one they are unwilling to swallow.
NDP Workplace Health and Safety critic Wayne Gates told the committee the NDP is already marshalling its troops against Schedule 6 of the bill, which contains a proposal to use surplus funds at the Worker Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) to give “safe” employers a rebate on their premiums.
“What I’m saying to the steel[workers] and all the other unions is: yell as loud as you can, because we’re in for a battle here,” he said. “Injured workers are going to suffer if this money is taken away from them.”
Given the PC’s enthusiastic effort to paint themselves as the “party of yes” and the opposition as creatures of the “politics of no,” the pro-worker policies contained within Bill 27 struck some political observers as a potential trap.
If the opposition could be made to vote against a bill containing policies such as allowing couriers to use the bathroom at a local business and helping skilled immigrants get their credentials recognized, the PC attack ads would practically write themselves. It was a strategy that had worked well for former prime minister Stephen Harper, one political strategist noted to Queen’s Park Today.
While the opposition allowed the bill to pass second reading without forcing a vote, they vowed to examine the bill with a fine-tooth comb and the New Democrats seem unlikely to support it moving forward, unless amendments are made.
“As far as we are concerned from the NDP, the poison pill of this bill [is] Schedule 6. The rest of it is really window dressing,” Gates declared on Tuesday. “We are united [with labour organizations] in saying to this government: let’s work on the other five schedules to make this a good bill, but take Schedule 6 out.”
McNaughton ‘happy with’ controversial rebate clause
Labour union and worker advocacy representatives who appeared before the committee agreed with Gates, arguing the WSIB surplus rebate would be akin to theft and betrayal for injured workers, whose claims are often denied for dubious reasons or are not given enough money to live on even when approved.
“It is beyond frustrating that the government is even considering this reallocation of the funds. It’s shameful as we all have illustrated. This money is overdue for injured workers and ill workers and their families,” fumed Canadian United Postal Workers president Qaiser Maroof.
“No piece of legislation can claim to be ‘working for workers’ when it worsens the circumstances of the most vulnerable segment of the workforce: injured workers,” added Patty Coates of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
Deepak Anand, the parliamentary assistant for labour, acknowledged that perhaps some changes could be made to make the clause more palatable, and said he would look at what other provinces have done with similar surpluses.
“I hear it loud and clear,” said Anand. “I am going to go back and am going to work with the WSIB more on this issue.”
But following Thursday’s hearing, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said he believes Schedule 6 is fine as is.
“I am really happy [with how it is],” McNaughton told Queen’s Park Today, who argued the surplus is only there because the PCs brought the WSIB system back from the brink of bankruptcy. “It’s important that we set up a formula so that money is returned back into local businesses and the local economy.”
McNaughton denied the measure was included to intentionally provoke the NDP into voting against the bill but said if they do, it will show that the party has “abandoned the working class in this province.”
No witnesses appeared before the committee to stick up for the WSIB change, but several business and construction groups voiced their support for the measure in McNaughton’s original press release about the measure. The WSIB has $6.1 billion in reserves; a “significant portion” will be redistributed to employers the province deems “safe.”